Our latest interactive feature in English Today: Usage advice online

When in doubt about questions of usage, I do as I suppose most other people do as well: I google it. That is only, however, the starting point of most internet searches. What I wanted to find out when I launched a survey on online usage sources in December last year on our website is what online sources on usage are (perceived as) the most popular, reliable and user-friendly.

In our latest feature in English Today I discuss the results of my survey and attempt to answer the question of who the language authorities are in the age of Web 2.0 and how the preference for particular online sources correlates with the participants’ age, occupation or with them being native speakers of English.

strict-teacherMany traditional sources on usage have adapted their format and extended their presence to the online medium, prime examples being style guides of media houses and online dictionaries. New language authorities, however, also emerged and entered the usage advice market. Some of them are written by individual authors – internet “grammar celebrities” – whereas others are products of collaboration and discussions led among lay people and language professionals.

One of the questions arising from the results of the survey is: who is, both online and offline, considered to be a language authority today. If you’d like to join the discussion on this topic choose one of the general categories below or add your own!

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A problem with soaring acceptance rates

Below follows Lingyun Lai’s first blogpost:

Since Mittins et al., in their book Attitudes to English usage, reported an overall acceptability of 50 English usage items in 1970, no systematic replication research had been conducted, until, from 2011 onwards, the Bridging the Unbridgeable project carried out a survey to repeat the original Mittins project. In the MA course Testing Prescriptivism Course, we were asked to compare the results of those two studies.

I imported the original polls’ results for the option “unacceptable under any circumstances” into Microsoft Excel 2013, and used the formula (100 – the unacceptable rate) to calculate the general acceptance rate. I similarlyimported the corresponding 1970 data and got the following results:

Lingyun Mittins

Figure 1. A comparison between 1970 and the Bridging the Unbrdgeable polls

The figures suggest that the acceptance rates for the ten usage problems studied increased drastically since forty years ago. The average rate had risen from 32.4% in 1970 to 95.9% forty years later. Does this trend imply a more tolerant attitude or a decline of prescriptivism in the new millennium?

Before jumping to a conclusion, I decided to explore the data further, and checked other statistics with SPSS 23. I noticed a big difference between the Standard Deviation values for two of the sentence polls, i.s. 12.1 versus 4.4. Standard Deviation is a statistical measure that allows us to observe the degree of variance among observations. My findings mean that the 1970s survey respondents varied their attitudes to different usage items significantly, whereas respondents of 2012 online survey demonstrated a much more homogenized attitude towards all items. See Figure 2 for this difference between the two groups of respondents:

Lingyun Mittins (2)Figure 2. Group Statistics of the 1970 and 2012 surveys.

Taking both types of results into consideration, I think there could be three possible interpretations:

  1. The results reflect a genuine picture. After forty years’ debate on prescriptivism, the general public has adopted a much more tolerant attitude towards almost all controversial language usages.
  2. The differences in variation are an indicator of two different populations (in a statistical sense). The 1970 and 2012 studies were conducted with two different methods: through onsite interviews and an online survey, so perhaps the Bridging the Unbridgeable polls only sampled a subgroup of the general public, the netizens, and perhaps this group of people accepted most of the controversial usages.
  3. The differences in variation are an indicator of the inefficiency of using online polls. A possible scenario could be that many online respondents did the survey rather casually, and responded all items with a similar pattern.

I would appreciate blog readers’ feedback on this issue!

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English Language Day 2016

Today is English Language Day, and yesterday we had a wondeful sneak preview of it with Harry Ritchie’s talk Ashamed of your English?, followed by more talk on English prescriptivism during lunch afterwards. Last year’s post to commemorate the day was called “Correct-your-English-language-day”, but, as Harry assured us, there is no need for that. At least, not if you are a native speaker of English. Great news I would say.

More English language news is that there is a new edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage. Adrian already told me about it a few weeks ago. This is great news from my own perspective, because it means my prediction has come true: 1st edition: 1998, 2nd edition: 2003; 3rd edition: 2009; 4th ed.: 2016?. So yes: he made it! What is more amazing, though, is not how the changing titles over the years came to look more and more like those of Fowler, but how “American” has now given way to “English”: this seems the ultimate change of title, so what will happen next, I wonder, and when?

Here is what Carmen thinks about the new edition:

What was so intriguing about his new edition was his innovative five-stage acceptability rating. Ranging from Stage 5 Refined, containing the most widely accepted usage features, to Stage 1: Audible flatulence, Garner’s ratings are not only intriguing and slightly bizarre, but also show a striking similarity with the arbitrariness of usage rules described by Milroy and Milroy (Authority in Language 2002, p. 1). The comparison of table manners to usage rules is more prominent than ever. However, what needs to be borne in mind is that table manners, just like usage rules, can vary. There is certainly a difference between having a family dinner at home and a formal gala at a posh restaurant. Social conventions such as these even vary between countries.  How we follow these social and linguistic conventions is an fascinating subject to study, due to the changing norms and conventions and the prescriptivists’ insistence on tradition.

Any more English language news you’d like to share with us on this year’s English Language Day?

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Has grammar become hip?

Here is Hielke Vriesendorp’s first blog post:

Whilst Google-searching for online usage advice, I expected to find  many different sorts of websites, but I can’t say I expected usage advice on lifestyle blogs, which were otherwise giving advice on relationships, motherhood, and beauty products. To my surprise, this was actually very common!

For example, take a look at the lifestyle blog Belle Brita, which posted a top 7 of Grammatical Mistakes Bloggers Need to STOP Making among articles about on relationships, marriage, and motherhood.  Or self-proclaimed yoga junkie Paige’s An Uncomplicated Life Blog, which between posts on DIY face washes and essential oils included one on 5 Common Grammar Mistakes to Stop Making Immediately (see image). Who would have expected to be given usage advice in such an aesthetically pleasing way?

These type of posts online seem to always be shaped in handsome lists with appealing titles, possibly to attract new visitors. It seems like the promise of getting usage advice has become so enticing that it can even be used as clickbait: there is an article on 20 Common Grammar Mistakes Everyone Makes on a website that otherwise only gives tips on ‘How To Get Your Buttocks Bigger Naturally!’.

Has grammar become cool? Is there a new generation that considers it hip to condemn a split infinitive? I’m curious to see what you think.

And if you were to write your own blogpost on the five worst grammar mistakes, which ones would you pick? If you’d like to contribute to my research on usage advice top lists, you can fill out my 5 minute survey here. Your help is greatly appreciated!

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New writer for the blog

I’m very pleased to be able to introduce a new member of our team of blog writers: Adrian Stenton. Adrian was the copy-editor of my book The Bishop’s Grammar (OUP, 2011), with which he did a really great job. After that, he weas one of the informants for Marilyn Hedges’s MA thesis on the use of like for as or as if, and since then, he has been following this blog. He is also one of the people who contributed to the birthday piece we wrote for the late Janet Whitcut.

Adrian has a huge database of academic prose (possibly including my own text!) which he has decided he wants to do research on in the light of some of the Mittins sentences we have been asking our readers’ input about. So you will be reading blog posts from him soon, and I hope you will give him the feedback he will be asking for.

Welcome on board, Adrian!

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The Comma Queen is back

Mary Norris, copy-editor and author of the usage guide Between you & me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, shares her knowledge on language use in a series of videos on The New Yorker.   Now in season two, the Comma Queen series discusses various usage problems as well as matters of punctuation in a straightforward, yet witty manner. Whether she physically attempts to split an infinitive or shares her insights into the editing process at The New Yorker, the videos are definitely worthwhile to watch. So go and click through them!

Here is her take on one of her pet peeves: massive.

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Running the unrunnable

On Friday (April 15) part of our research team participated in the 41st Singelloop in Leiden — the annual road running event (ca 7 km) around the canals of Leiden. We were part of a team of linguists from Leiden University. Congratulations to all runners who participated in this cool event!

Click here for more pictures.


Left to right: Morana Lukač, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Olga Kepinska, Viktorija Kostadinova and Elly Dutton

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